From foiling bomb plots to learning how to scuba dive.
In-house newsletters from the clandestine National Security Agency have been released by an online news site—part of the mountain of documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The Intercept, whose founding editors were the first to publish documents leaked by Snowden, released on Monday the first batch of nine years’ worth of the newsletters, which offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the NSA’s work. The newsletters reveal efforts to eavesdrop on a Russian crime boss, the search in Iraq for possible weapons of mass destruction, and help with interrogations at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
An article in the May 2003 newsletter describes how NSA spent “many months” obtaining the phone number of a Russian organized crime figure so his calls could be intercepted. The State Department asked the NSA for information on the boss of the Tambov crime network in Russia—a figure known only as “Mr. Kumarin”—and whether he had any ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The man later was convicted of fraud and money laundering and sentenced to 14 years behind bars.
In a newsletter article published Dec. 22, 2003, an NSA liaison officer recounts a temporary duty assignment at Guantanamo Bay where the task was to provide intelligence to support Defense Department, CIA, and FBI interrogations of detainees picked up off battlefields.
The job entailed relaying information back to NSA, based at Fort Meade in Maryland. But sometimes, NSA would share “sensitive NSA-collected technical data” to help the interrogators.
According to Intercept, “Neither the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s detention and rendition program (which confirmed the existence of two CIA facilities at Guantánamo) nor a 2008 Senate Armed Services Committee report on detainee abuse by the military addresses the role of the NSA, at least in the heavily censored versions that have been made public.”
It was serious business, but in their off hours, NSA liaisons at scenic Guantanamo Bay could visit the “Tiki Bar,” or enjoy water sports, such as sailing, and snorkeling.
“Learn how to operate a boat in a weekend,” the liaison wrote. “Become a certified open-water scuba diver within weeks … The local dive shop has all the gear and tips to ensure a perfect outing.”
In a more taxing assignment, the newsletter reports on a rendition where six Algerians, linked to a plan to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo, were moved from Bosnia to Guantanamo in early 2002. The U.S. rendition program involved secretly sending foreign captives to other countries that have more lax practices for the humane treatment of detainees.
A Bosnian judge ordered the Algerians released for lack of evidence, but the U.S. persuaded the Bosnian government to turn them over to U.S. custody.
An NSA staffer wrote about the movement in the newsletter, as part of a series replete with stories about working overtime for the agency.
As soon as they were released, the Algerians were to be transported from Sarajevo to another Bosnia city and then on to Guantanamo. The staffer’s job was to watch the route for a possible ambush from a military convoy.
The Algerians’ release “was delayed for several hours due to a large demonstration outside the building they were being held in,” and “the convoy did not leave Sarajevo until after midnight,” she wrote.
One of the Algerians, Lakhdar Boumediene, went on to file a lawsuit that led to a landmark decision in June 2008 that Guantánamo detainees had the right to challenge their detention in federal court.
Other tales came from NSA’s work in Iraq. NSA staffers worked to research the locations for weapons of mass destruction material, although claims about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction proved to be false.
NSA also provided timely intelligence support, including a “summary of contacts” that helped efforts to capture a top Baathist official in May 2003. Aziz Sajih Al-Numan, accused of torture and murder in Iraq, was the king of diamonds in the U.S. Central Command’s deck of cards of most-wanted Iraqis. The newsletter boasted: “Al-Numan was caught within 25 hours after the Army contacted NSA to request support.”